Reputation Management

CarolinaFireJournal - Ron J. Cheves
Ron J. Cheves
08/07/2015 -

Reputation management should be the foundation of any Emergency Service Origination (ESO). Members and especially the officers of the ESOs are held to a higher standard, and trust must be maintained. News and social media can cause long-term permanent damage to the reputation of the entire emergency service network.


Remember this well quoted line? “If you continue to do the same thing you have always done, you will continue to get the same results.”

When there is any type of negative news going, the sensationalized journalism can make all ESOs very vulnerable. No matter how careful and prepared your organization is, unforeseen and unfortunate events are a reality and should be planned for.

If we develop a model, or best practice program to protect and to improve the reputation of our organization, we would be in a better position if or when something should occur in the organization.  Your model should include but not be limited to:

  1. Public Trust
  2. Public Perception
  3. Accountability and Individual Behavior
  4. Values

There are many best practice case studies available start building a model for your origination; these tools and resources are available through the IAFC, VCOS and USFA free for your perusal and downloads.

Start very simply by developing a marketing plan to promote your ESO in a positive light. Your department should a have marketing and public relations plan like any business would. There are so many good and positive things done every day in the service, but the public is usually not aware of them. Some people think we have a monopoly on fire and EMS protection in our communities, but that could be changing. More communities, towns, and municipalities are looking at the way the ESOs are being run and funded. If you don’t think this could happen to you, you are wrong. Private fire and EMS companies are on the move across the country — mostly in the EMS — they are able to do the job for a lot less simply because they operate as a for-profit origination and control spending. We must be able to show our community and our elected officials the real value in our services and benefits we provide.

Why Public Relations? Why Reputation Management?

We all should be trying to create a very positive public opinion and positive image for our agency. We should all have some type of control on the news that comes out of our agency, whether it is a public information officer, or just a written policy as to what and how we communicate information to the public. We all should have a good working relationship with the media. When something does happen they will have the proper direction to follow to get the correct information. If you don’t provide the media some type of information in a timely manner they will get the information from someone else, and chances are the information will be wrong. Never tell the media you have “NO COMMENT.” This is the best sign that you have something that you want to keep from someone.

If your organization is truly ready to start to make a plan to develop a model to follow, you must first look at yourself. This is where most organizations fail. We all have a difficult time defining what our weak links are. Most times the organization won’t like what they find and give up.

Don’t feel bad, the fact is most ESOs across the country do a poor job at telling the public how well we do things, and what great benefits we provide to the community. I just read about one survey done by someone in a particular part of the country that asked four questions to several organizations. I was not really surprised with the results. As I travel across the country and visit all different sized organizations, paid, combination, and volunteer, I find we are all in the same situation.

Here is what this survey asks, and what it found:

  • Question: Do you feel like the public understands what you do? Over 90 percent said No
  • Question: Do you do anything to make the public aware?  Over 75 percent said No
  • Question: Do you provide customer service training to your department? Over 75 percent said No
  • Question: Do feel like this is important to your department? Over 75 percent said Yes

Remember this well quoted line? “If you continue to do the same thing you have always done, you will continue to get the same results.”

Communication is the best way to educate the public about you agency. If you have a website, it should be current and updated often. Monthly is good but weekly is best. If you are doing this you are well ahead of most agencies in the country. Social media has given everyone total and immediate access to all things within your agency and this should be controlled. It can be very helpful, but it can also be very harmful if not maintained and controlled properly. There should be a Social Media Guideline for your department as to what should be posted and who controls it. Keep the members that update the website and post on Facebook and Twitter to a minimum. Fewer people involved means better control.

One last issue that should be noted is the ESO employees or members of a volunteer agency. There must be control over who is hired. Hiring practices and standards should stay in place if you have them, and put in place if you do not. Even with all these standards in place you must monitor what goes on within your organization, including all the officers and the chief. Boards of directors in volunteer systems must also be monitored before and after selection. The local and national news is proof that even the highest ranking members in the organizations sometimes can’t be trusted all the time. There should be check and balance procedures in place that would not allow any one person, no matter the rank, to be able to approve and write checks or withdraw money without several signatures. This should also include one person making all the decisions within the organization. Too many people have gone to jail and most importantly too many good organizations have lost funding they can’t afford to lose.

I remember Chief Dennis Rubin (Washington, D.C.) told a group of officers in a conference that if you hire idiots, thugs, and misfits, you would never be surprised when they let you down. You might remember what happened to the LAPD back in the late 1990s when they had to hire more officers on the streets in Los Angles. The story goes, by reducing the selection standards; the LAPD improved the numbers by hiring almost anyone. In 1997 several of the newly hired officers were connected with the drive by shooting of Rap Star Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie). By lowering the background standards the LAPD found itself in a very preventable and embarrassing situation.

Contributing References:

Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firefighters Association

IAFC, VCOS, USFA, Wikipedia

Chief Ron J. Cheves (ret.) has 39 plus years as a volunteer in the fire and emergency services rising to the position of Fire Chief. He currently leads the Red Ribbon courses for the VCOS section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and in 2012 was appointed to NFPA 1720, the standard for Organization and Deployment by Volunteer Fire-EMS Dept. He is a columnist/lecturer for several fire service publications and participates in numerous conferences throughout the country. Cheves now serves his local community as the Safety Officer for the Robinson Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department, a progressive Fire-Rescue provider for about 5,000 residents. He can be reached at 704-557-5781 or [email protected].
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